There’s no need to spend the earth to sound better!
In an ideal world we would all have enough money to look at the weak points in our recording and mixing processes and fix them with expensive, high end equipment. In the real world we have to balance our budgets and choose where to spend our hard earned cash to improve our recording and mixing setups. In this article I am going to list the 5 things that have given me the biggest ‘bang for the buck‘ improvements in my recordings or mixes.
1. BUY A GOOD SET OF HEADPHONES
Not everyone can afford a professional set of full-range studio monitors, but nearly every person serious about recording or mixing can afford a professional set of headphones. There are plenty of good options around the £100-£200 mark. How can a good set of headphones help us?
Firstly, they give you a consistent audio reference point no matter what room, space or studio you might be in. Once you have learnt how your particular headphones ‘sound’, you can gauge the timbre and balance of your recordings even when listening through unfamiliar speakers or a badly treated room.
While I wouldn’t recommend mixing solely on headphones, they can help you pinpoint problems in recordings or mixes easier than on speakers. Used when tracking a vocalist you will be able to hear pops, clicks or tuning issues better. When mixing on small speakers that can’t hit the very low bass frequencies, checking on headphones with good bass extension can really help you check the low end.
I personally have used the Sennheiser HD-25 headphones for over 20 years. I have tried other brands and models, but always end up coming back to this headphone as it has become my reference for how recordings sound. That’s not to say they are the best, they are just what I have become accustomed to and trust.
One common decision is whether to buy closed or open backed headphones? Open backed headphones can sound more natural but will not be of any use when tracking with microphones as they let a lot of sound spill out. Closed back are the best choice if you want one set for both tracking and mixing.
2. BUY A MICROPHONE POP SHIELD
While this is less of an issue for handheld dynamic microphones, large-diaphragm condenser microphones have a habit of popping and overloading if blasted with air. I always cringe when I see a classic Neumann or AKG microphone being sung into without a pop shield! Whilst an experienced singer might have excellent mic control, most singers will inevitably cause pops and plosives on words starting with ‘P’ or ‘B’.
These can ruin an otherwise perfect take, and be extremely hard to remove after the fact. A pop shield needn’t cost the earth – in fact, historically they were lovingly homemade out of coat hangers and nylon tights! Alternatively there are nylon and metal models of various prices, but any of them will drastically improve your vocal recordings and therefore also help you in the mixing stage too.
Another common decision is whether to go for nylon or metal pop shields. Some say the nylon shields dampen the high frequencies more than a metal shield, but I feel the benefits of using any type of shield far outweigh any slight frequency change. Metal shields can be more durable and easier to clean but not as effective on plosives as a nylon shield. 4-ply double shields are the best bet for nylon but can be more expensive, harder to clean and can rip.
3. GET YOUR INSTRUMENTS PROPERLY SETUP AND TUNED
Garbage in = Garbage out. This is very true in recording. If your instrument is poorly setup, tuned or maintained you are putting yourself at a huge disadvantage.
One of the biggest obstacles in a recording session is bad intonation or tuning. A poorly setup guitar can be in tune for half of the song and out of tune for the rest. A poorly tuned drum kit will rarely sound good no matter how much processing is applied in the mix.
If you are not comfortable setting up your stringed instrument yourself, consider paying a local expert to do it for you. Your instrument will come back easier to play, often richer in tone and will be a much more inspiring and reliable instrument.
When it comes to drums, often a reverberant space will hide tuning deficiencies. Spend some time in a more dead room (such as your lounge or bedroom) to experiment with drum tuning, the relationship between the tensions of top and bottom heads and the different tones available with head and damping choices. It’s a really valuable skill even if you aren’t a drummer.
Here is a video from Drum Workshop on the basics of drum tuning:
4. GET TO KNOW HOW YOUR ROOM SOUNDS
Some time ago I moved my studio into a different room. After I delivered a few mixes to a regular client he came back with the feedback that my mixes were light on the low end. My ego told me that couldn’t be right, my speakers were better than my client’s speakers, his must be cutting the low end?
Then it dawned on me that I had got into the habit of regularly cutting the same low frequency in nearly every recent mix (around 125Hz). I did a sine wave sweep of my room and, sure enough, there was a huge peak at 125Hz. I had been compensating for my poorly treated new room and robbing all of my recent mixes of their low end.
You can pay to have your room professionally analysed but to get a rough idea of any issues you can use your ears and your favourite DAW software. I have used two different options over the years – a sweepable sine wave generator and a synth patch of a pure sine wave.
In the first option you sweep the sine wave generator up from 20Hz (keeping careful not to have your monitors too loud) and listen for any frequency ranges that seem to stick out. Bear in mind that the very lowest frequencies are likely to be below the range of your speakers, but you should start getting an idea from about 60Hz-100Hz depending on your particular studio monitors. Make a note of the frequencies which appear much louder or much quieter.
Another option is to load up a synth patch with just a sine wave and play every note in turn on your keyboard from the very bottom. Listen again for any notes that seem louder or quieter. If you listen on headphones at this point the bass notes are likely to be more even. If this is the case then you can work out which frequencies your particular room boosts or cuts. If you need any help with this you can book a studio consultation with us here at Mix Medics.
The next time you notice a booming bass note briefly check on your headphones to see if it sticks out there. If not it is likely to be your room playing tricks on you!
5. INVEST IN AS MUCH ACOUSTIC TREATMENT AS YOU CAN AFFORD
This particular problem really pushed me into investing in some acoustic treatment, and I’ll be honest in saying that this was the single biggest improvement I have ever made in my studio. I had put it off for years, preferring instead to buy more microphones, rack gear or plugins.
When I first turned my speakers on after treating my room it felt like I had replaced my speakers and interface with models costing twice as much! My bass end tightened up, I could hear individual parts of mixes much clearer than before and the room even felt nicer to be in when I spoke.
Now I didn’t spend a fortune. I bought my first three panels secondhand for £140. After inspecting them I realised I had probably paid a bit too much and took the plunge to make my own. With a lot of internet research and planning, some Rockwool panels, timber, fabric and a staple gun my father and I made a further 6 panels and bass traps. Any left over Rockwool was packed inside cheap clothes storage bags and tucked away in all the many nooks and crannies in my studio.
There are lots of designs on the web for homemade panels, some that require woodworking skills, some that don’t. I really recommend proper Rockwool or Owens Corning based acoustic panels. They are a far better solution than simply covering your walls with acoustic foam which usually only affects the high frequencies.
My acoustic panels were by far the biggest ‘bang for the buck’ I have ever made in my studio and I can’t recommend enough trying to sort the sound of your room out before you buy any more recording or mixing equipment!